I am on my way home from teaching a four-day intensive in Portland, Oregon at The Bhaktishop, run by the fabulous Lisa Mae Osborn. In October 2011, I resigned my license to teach Anusara yoga. Lisa Mae invited me to come and teach at her place in the midst of many cancellations for various reasons. And while the years following my resignation were somewhat rough at times, as I struggled to find an authentic balance between my past training and my current offerings, Lisa Mae has stood next to me as a solid companion and friend on the Path. She and I are around the same age and have been “in the ring” teaching yoga for around the same time so we share a long-term perspective about the inner work of teaching in the midst of the ever-changing tides of industry trends.
And while Lisa has always been interested in the intersection of spirituality and politics, that passion has been ignited since the 2016 election and in what we both see as its aftermath. She has spent the last year using her studio-- and platform as a teacher and community leader-- to offer workshops, seminars, and trainings dedicated to inclusivity, diversity and social justice. These topics are highly charged, difficult to work with well, and increasingly necessary in a time when racial tensions are high, equal rights of all kinds are threatened, and every news cycle brings some fresh new hell for us to confront, examine, process, and attempt to integrate into what has become a new normal. Whether or not yoga teachers want to be political, and despite the valid and varied positions regarding the role of the teacher/studio in our current political climate, the cultural backdrop from which people now enter our classes is fraught with upset. That much seems obvious.
So, when discussing a format for my offering this year, Lisa Mae asked if some of the elements to which she has been dedicated since the election might be included in an intensive for yoga teachers. Thus, The Grace of Great Things Teacher Intensive was born.
While I am no social justice educator, nor do I consider myself an activist, I have never been one to shy away from difficult discussions in the right setting. (And, before that sounds like a “right setting” and “wrong setting” or a “good time to talk about oppression” v. a “bad time to talk about oppression” I do believe that some situations are more conducive to communication and dialogue than others. And some suit my temperament better than others. And so “right” is not a value judgement as much as a recognition of what I need as a facilitator to step into sensitive territory.) I asked for all participants to commit to the entire training, accepted no “drop-in-for-asana-only” registrations, and asked for a four-day intensive format where we met for five hours in the middle of each day with breaks throughout.
I had a loose template to work with and centered our writing and discussions around a section in Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach, called The Grace of Great Things. This section of his book talks about a vision of educational community that gathers around the great things of any subject, makes room for the sacred and secular to inform one another, and honors each participant in the community with respect and reverence for their varied experience, expertise, and humanity.
I found the week difficult. It rained continually and the group didn’t always laugh at my jokes. We had varied asana capacities and differing backgrounds and spheres of influence. The topics brought me into the realm of my own existential considerations of power, corruption, and futility which made me reach for sources of hope, healing, and strength in new ways.
I also found the work exhilarating, meaningful, and deep. One of my favorite things about teaching right now is that I have found some interesting avenues to make use of my many struggles as a person and a teacher. I have an abundance of stories about my varied misunderstandings— as a student, a teacher, a wife, a friend, etc. that illustrate how messy the path can be. I don’t share them because I “need to share” as much as because I hope to level the field a bit, to end the silence of shame that isolates, divides, and cuts us off from our own gifts and offerings. It's kind of weird to say it, but my teaching work became redemptive when I no longer felt it was necessary to have all the answers, to be a shining example of righteousness, health or well-being, or to have the most refined understanding of asana, anatomy, or philosophy on the market.
In writing, it seems obvious to me that as nice as it might sound to gather around The Grace of Great Things, it is only fair that those Great Things exact a price in order for their Grace to be recognized. And while I believe that Grace is Grace because it needn’t be earned, my experience has often been that to step into its flow requires some kind of payment in the form of personal inquiry, risk, trust, and surrender. And, it seems, that the gift of those sacrifices, is always returned ten-thousand fold from my students. To witness and participate in another person’s self-inquiry, risk-taking, courage, and surrender is a Grace like no other.
Some key points emerged as take-aways from my own musings and from the students heart-felt sharing, regarding how yoga teachers create safe space for others in this troubled time. The following list is not an exhaustive enumeration, nor do I have each point fleshed out in some organized plan, but here goes--
More could be said, but that is enough for today.
Shelter From the Storm: Yoga For Troubled Times
One month of Online Inspiration, Education and Support
Every day during the month of November you will receive an email-delivered straight to your inbox with yoga-inspired teachings, techniques, and practices that you can incorporate into your life easily and immediately. Practitioners and teachers of all levels will find personal inspiration for practice on and off the mat without long lectures, appointments to keep, or in-depth assignments. All lessons and supporting materials are downloadable and yours to keep and use over and over again.
For approximately $1.66/day, you will receive:
Please note— if you have been displaced (and still have computer access) or have lost your job due to recent upheavals, please contact me directly for a scholarship to participate.
“Not one political crisis, environmental tragedy, or interpersonal argument will be made better by you not being your most whole, integrated, work-in-progress self. CNN, Facebook and the Twitter-stream will be there when you return from your mat, cushion, or various service work. Even if your practice won’t make the world a better place, it certainly won’t make it worse.”- Christina Sell, Blog Entry 10/01/2017
If you are a yoga teacher, please consider adding on:
Teaching in Troubled Times
December 1-15, 2017
This course will build on the platform of Shelter From the Storm but will speak directly to teachers about how to use the reality of our shared world as a springboard for teaching, without sermonizing, glossing-over, catastrophizing, or avoiding. From philosophical teaching to prop-based exercises to sequencing strategies, this course will explore how to support yourself and your students to find courage, strength, and hope in both personal practice and in the classroom.
Daily emails, delivered to your inbox will include:
SIGN UP TODAY!
Please note— if you have been displaced (and still have computer access) or have lost your job due to recent upheavals, please contact me directly for a scholarship to participate.
“Yoga teachers have an opportunity to invite people into the field where anatomical placement meets inner awareness through attention, breath, movement and stillness so that wholeness and healing can rise. It needn’t be fancy, It may not require a sermon from you. You don’t need to know every last thing about trikonasna, nor do you need to have all your shit sorted out in order for Grace to work through you. The power of the practice, the invitation for Grace to move through the group, and the desire to serve are the tools of our trade and are not to be taken lightly or disregarded flippantly or cynically. And so, while tonight’s class or tomorrow’s training may not change the world, chances are good that the class will help you and the two-or-more-people-gathered-with-you to glimpse a greater Possibility than despair, division and hatred.”— Christina Sell, Blog Entry, 20/02/2017
Last night I dreamt of Las Vegas. In my dream, among other common dream-time images was something new— toxic rain. Down from the sky rained a green, thick, and rotten goo that covered everyone and stifled their ability to breathe, to see, and to speak. As the rain continued, the situation became increasingly dire and I struggled to get to the meeting where I knew my spiritual teacher was holding darhsan.
I awoke to the news, well, that we all awoke to.
I want to add something to yesterday’s blog entry, where I said that my reasons for practice are not very lofty and that generally, world peace has never gotten me on my mat. I also mentioned that I think we are in a time in history where the forces of evil are gathering and the odds don’t seem so good for those of us wanting to live in the Light. (You can read entire post here, if you haven’t. It’s 1038 words and won’t take you very long. Meet you back here in a a few minutes.)
Okay, we are back.
Today, I want to add, that, while I do not think that my down dog is activism, nor do I think that a group of generally privileged people gathering to practice yoga has much influence on world events, I also believe that yoga studios, classes, workshops and trainings— big, small, well-known, and/or obscure— have the power to provide sanctuary, refuge, and dare I say, shelter from the ravages of the storms of our lives.
I know that we fail.
Yoga teachers, for all our great traits and training, have blind spots, unexamined biases, and unchecked prejudices that can be gigantic and problematic. We have personality flaws that get the best of us, wreaking havoc in our families and communities. Our industry, driven by capitalistic values, is as broken as any other— studios have trouble making enough money to stay open, teachers deserve to paid more than they are, and students find it hard to afford their classes. Flashy moves and sexy packaging sells; wisdom, depth, and the endurance to stay in place year after year often go unnoticed, unrecognized, and unappreciated. I could go on, but if you are paying attention, you have heard it all before.
And yet, I know that in the midst of these failures, when we get enough out of the way to be of service to something other than ourselves, a Grace is possible. People come to our classes and find healing, respite, renewal, hope, faith, and the strength to get back up again. Not everyone. Not all the time. And yet, that these outcomes happen at all, gives me hope and inspiration.
The Christian teachings assert that when two or more are gathered in His name, there He will also be. The Buddhist traditions remind us that the sangha, or community, is one of the three Jewels of Refuge. Those of your steeped in certain Tantric streams of philosophy and practice will recall the teachings of the kula, or spiritual family, that remind us of the transformational power of Grace held in a community of committed practitioners. I remember one of my teachers in particular saying, “Consciousness, which tends to contract, expands when people come together with a common aim.”
Thiis Possibility of Grace, of sanctuary, of shelter, of refuge, is not ours to grant personally as much as it is ours to invite into Being through our active participation in creating, cultivating and nourishing a field in which it can arise. Providing shelter from the storm does not depend on our spiritual perfection or personality-based skill, but depends instead, on a continual emptying-out of ourselves through heartbreak, brokenness, mistake-making, self-reflection, genuine remorse, amends-making, renewed commitments, broken promises, forgiveness, and the humility that can only happen when we stay in the game and endeavor to contribute.
Like I said previously, I don’t think much about changing the world.
However, I think quite a bit about how to contribute. Sometimes, my best contribution is inner work. When I got interested in racial injustice,for instance, I wanted to act, but instead, I started reading A LOT. I asked people to read with me and to educate ourselves so that we might get some insight into how best to take action later.
Sometimes, my contribution is outer action. Do the dishes, take out the garbage, call the senators, donate money, grant a scholarship, and so on.
Sometimes, my contribution is enjoyable. I have loved watching my parents blossom under my care and seeing their lives take new shape with joy.
Sometimes, my contribution sacrificial. I own up to my temper, my judgement and sacrifice looking good in order to mend a broken relationship or to find a new threshold of intimacy. Sometimes, the most obvious way to serves is not fun, sexy, profitable or likely to get me any accolades whatsoever.
There is no one way to make a contribution and no prescription that I can make to help anyone find theirs. But if you are a yoga teacher, you are placed well to get started. Yoga teachers have an opportunity to invite people into the field where anatomical placement meets inner awareness through attention, breath, movement and stillness so that wholeness and healing can rise. It needn’t be fancy, It may not require a sermon from you. You don’t need to know every last thing about trikonasna, nor do you need to have all your shit sorted out in order for Grace to work through you. The power of the practice, the invitation for Grace to move through the group, and the desire to serve are the tools of our trade and are not to be taken lightly or disregarded flippantly or cynically.
And so, while tonight’s class or tomorrow’s training may not change the world, chances are good that the class will help you and the two-or-more-people-gathered-with-you to glimpse a greater Possibility than despair, division and hatred.
And that matters a lot.
To me, anyway.
And probably for those who made it to class.
I had a phone session with my therapist a few weeks ago. I began by saying, “Well, since last we talked, there has been a solar eclipse, forest fires, storms, and floods of Biblical proportions, and it seems we are on the brink of WW3.. And that is just on the outer plane.”
And, of course, she asks me, “Have you had any dreams?”
“Why, yes,” I replied, “yes, I have.”
Writing about yoga teaching and practice these days always feels like it runs the risk of being somewhat tone deaf. And yet, I do not have much to add in terms of political or social commentary.
As a practitioner and teacher, I can add my two cents that I believe practice remains relevant and important—although more than one of my colleagues and students has told me their practice feels insignificant, self-indulgent, and even meaningless in the face of so much devastation, heartbreak and corruption.
I think those feelings of doubt are completely understandable, especially for those tender-hearted, optimistic individuals who have practiced for the last 1-20 years thinking that their personal yoga practice and the collective energy of other folks who practice was actually helping the world be a better place. I, being a more self-centered realist (as opposed to a tender-hearted idealist) have never been motivated to practice by such lofty aims as world peace or making the world a better place.
Don’t get me wrong, I am into world peace. And, I certainly think there are some things “out there” that could use improving. And, to be fair, if you pressed me, and we went down the rabbit hole of my reasons for sustaining practice in my life, maybe, just maybe the conversation might end up there anyway..
But practice for outer change is not the narrative from which I operate on a daily basis.
For years, I practiced mostly to avoid the personal suffering that came in the form of self-hatred, addictive behavior, anxiety and general ennui. I suppose some of that original motivation remains in the pantheon of my personal reasons for practice. But at some point in my journey, I realized that I no longer felt crazy, isolated, or in need of a constant reality check lest I head down a road dictated by my lesser angels. At some point I realized, that having practice in my life is just a better way for me to live. Additionally, many behaviors and perspectives no longer required so much “practice”, but had simply integrated themselves into a more natural way of being.
These days I feel like we are living in a scene from the Lord of the Rings right before the big battle, when the forces of evil are gathering and, as is usually the case in any epic tale, the odds are not on the side of those fighting for Light. I mean, one scroll through my newsfeed doesn’t bear much good news about our current, collective plight. (Okay, there are the puppy videos. And some lovely reports of human kindness and small-scale miracles. So that is something,)
And so, if I practiced because I thought that my down dog could influence our current President to abandon his divisive tactics and become a man of unity, I would have already given up. If I practiced because I thought that embracing the abandoned and disowned parts of myself would make a difference in the heart of Neo-Nazi’s, hate groups and the growing alt-right, well, I would not sustain the effort.
And, as much as I have studied the non-dual dharma teachings of many traditions, I take very little refuge in the teachings of non-duality on a daily basis. I mean, sure, it’s all One and what was never actually born (the soul) can never truly die and this play of circumstances is simply the One manifesting in its myriad choices of freedom, blah, blah, blah. Great teachings. Inspiring and up-lifting. Even great conversational fodder on any given day.
But not why I practice.
I figure we are always lined up on a battlefield facing an enemy of some kind— be that enemy one’s personal demons, damaging social imperatives, oppressive cultural structures, or the many expressions our corrupt political arena— and we are called to fight. I believe practice is part of that fight. I believe that whatever peace, clarity, sense of okay-ness, embodiment, and/or transcendence we are blessed to find through the various mechanisms of practice are part of our armor and arsenal in a battle where the odds often don’t look very good.
But not fighting is the other choice and for me, not fighting means despair, blame, violence, etc. which are not viable options.
At some point in my teaching, I stopped promising that “if you do_____, this good thing will happen.” I mean, it might. But it also might not. It might for a little while. Then it might not for a very long while. And so on. The whole narrative of “getting better” and “achieving” has a lot of downsides on a practical level after a certain point. For me, the point of the practice is to do the practice and, it seems, that the outcomes of said practice may never be fully known and may not always be felt or experienced as "good.".
I am sure there are a ton of loopholes and inconsistencies in my musings today, which I am not really prepared to defend. My point is, if, in the face of “all of it” these days, you have abandoned your practice in some way— be it literally, like you never roll out your mat anymore, or figuratively, like you have lost faith— find some aspect of practice again. Today.
Not one political crisis, environmental tragedy, or interpersonal argument will be made better by you not being your most whole, integrated, work-in-progress self. CNN, Facebook and the Twitter-stream will be there when you return from your mat, cushion or various service work. Even if your practice won’t make the world a better place, it certainly won’t make it worse.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."